Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Archaeology and Heritage of the Human Movement into Space

A new book on space archaeology is about to be released (August): Archaeology and Heritage of the Human Movement into Space, edited by Beth Laura O'Leary and P.J. Capelotti. It's based around papers from a session at the Society for American Archaeology last year.

My offering is about the kinds of data we can access about orbital objects and their cultural meanings. A key part of my argument is based around a brilliant photograph taken by Dr Marco Langbroek, a Palaeolithic archaeologist and astrographer, of a section of geostationary orbit. I look at what the spatial relationship between the satellites says about geopolitics, the spectrum landscape between Earth and space, and even go a bit of Deleuze and Guattari (this surprised me as much as I expect it surprises you).

Here's a taster:
Spectrum is both a driver of satellite telecommunications technology and an invisible ‘soup’ in which the spacecraft swim. This makes it very different from sensory landscapes of human interaction, composed of visible light wavelengths, sound, and the molecular interactions of smell and touch. It is truly non-human and robotic; our interaction with it can only be mediated by antennas and signal processors.
And there's much more where that came from.

There are many other fascinating chapters, and we're very excited about the book, which captures the state of the discipline 11 years after the 5th World Archaeological Congress in 2003.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Evolution, orbital debris, and Laika's ghost

Laika's Ghost is a short story by Canadian science fiction writer Karl Schroeder. Gardner Dozois (I love you, Gardner, best science fiction editor in the world ever) included it in his Mammoth Book of Best New SF 25 (2012). Dozois' introduction says the story 'takes us to a desolate future Russia haunted by ghosts of the Soviet past, where a game is being played for the highest stakes of all'.

Don't worry, there are no spoilers. The following passage, naturally, struck me. One of the characters, Ambrose, laments:
Then when I was twelve the Pakistan-Indian war happened and they blew up each other's satellites. All that debris from the explosions is going to be up there for centuries! You can't even get a manned [sic] spacecraft through that cloud, it's like shrapnel. Hell, they haven't even cleared low Earth orbit to restart the orbital tourist industry. I'll never get to really go there! None of us will. We're never getting off this sinkhole. 
In this scenario, human access to space has been closed off by a catastrophic space debris event, killing a vibrant space tourism industry, and with it dreams of Martian settlement. Earth governments or authorities - 'they' - appear helpless, unable or unwilling to initiate a clean-up operation.

The last image is compelling. Ambrose paints the Earth as a sinkhole, a low energy point of stable equilibrium in a dynamical system, that we're stranded at the bottom of. How will we scale the gravity walls to emerge into space now? Outside is the danger of shrapnel, as if it were a WWI trench.

To my archaeologist's mind, another vision comes: the famous sinkhole site in South Africa, Swartkrans, where it was first discovered that our ancestors the Australopithecines were not mighty hunters kick-starting the evolutionary process to modern humans by cooking a few chops, (while defending the female-types cowering back in the cave from leopards), but were rather prey to the carnivores instead.

What is the archaeological signature of a culture that made it into space and then retreated? In this future scenario, Earth becomes Swartkrans rather than Olduvai.

A leopard sinks its teeth into a hominid cranium